Chef Tanya Holland’s Sweet Potato Rolls and What Many People Still Don’t Know About Soul Food

updated Feb 2, 2021
Sweet Potato Dinner Rolls

These tender rolls get their pale orange hue and delicate sweetness from mashed sweet potatoes.

Makes15 rolls

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Dinner rolls sit in neat rows in the baking pan
Credit: Brittany Conerly

When it comes to America’s culinary legacy, no other group has had quite as much impact as African Americans. Sadly, that impact has historically been diminished and rarely fully acknowledged. Soul food is arguably one of the most popular types of American food, but the cuisine’s true origins are often glossed over.

For decades, African American chefs, food scholars, and writers have worked to rightfully place the origins of soul food in African American kitchens. People like Tanya Holland, an award-winning chef, author, TV and podcast host, and owner of the Oakland’s beloved Brown Sugar Kitchen, are working to share the history and importance of soul food.

Tanya was raised in Rochester, New York, but both of her parents are from the South. Soul food was often on the table when she was growing up, particularly when friends and family came over. That home cooking has had a significant influence on Tanya over the course of her career.

She graduated from University of Virginia with a degree in Russian Language and Literature before receiving a Grande Diplôme from La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in Paris. Tanya’s background in food is varied, but she’s known for being a pioneer of modern soul food cuisine. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2008, Tanya opened Brown Sugar Kitchen, her soul food restaurant in West Oakland, a historic Black neighborhood.   

Tanya shared with us her recipe for sweet potato dinner rolls, a delicious way to highlight one of the most prominent ingredients in soul food cuisine. When the first Africans arrived here, sweet potatoes became a central component of their diet because it was the tuber that most resembled the yams of West Africa. Cultural details like this are rarely part of discussions about soul food, but people like Tanya are slowly changing the conversation. We were lucky enough to speak with her about soul food cuisine and what many still don’t know about it.

Season 2 of Tanya’s podcast, Tanya’s Table, is currently airing every Tuesday on all major podcast platforms.

Credit: Brittany Conerly

People tend to use “Southern food” and “soul food” interchangeably. Can you speak to the difference between the two?
Soul food is based in Southern food because that’s where Black people landed in this country, so it makes sense, but Southern food really depends on what part of the South you’re in. There are differences based on availability of ingredients. You’ll find soul food wherever you have an African American population that migrated from the South. Some ended up in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland. Some ended up in Los Angeles and Oakland, and just like all migrations you bring some ingredients with you and use some of what you find, and the cuisine evolves.

I know you’re trained in all sorts of cuisines and styles of cooking, but when it comes to soul food where did you first learn those recipes?
Definitely at home. My mother’s from Louisiana and my father’s from Virginia, and they entertained and cooked a lot for friends and family. So really just through recipes and flavors that have been passed down for generations.

There’s historically a stereotype of soul food being unhealthy and unsophisticated. Do you think that perceptions are beginning to change?
Soul food started off with a lot of vegetables from the garden and grains, and historically the proteins we used were castoffs that the slaveowners didn’t want. Just like other ethnic cuisines in America, there was a sort of bastardization of it in the convenience era of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s when no one cooked from scratch.

The fats were a way to stretch meals, you know. You’re talking about a lot of impoverished folks and people who have been marginalized. One piece of pork fat could be very filling for an entire family, and so that’s how it was traditionally. I think we’ve always had the opportunity to make it healthy, but it’s all about access: to information, to tools, and to fresh vegetables. Most of our communities are in food deserts, and that’s intentional with patriarchy and white supremacy. It’s really deep; there’s not just one single answer for that sort of thing.

Why do think there’s been such a reluctance in the food world to really situate the origins of soul food in Black kitchens?
So that more people can claim it, I suppose. Black cooks have not been credited or rewarded for their contributions to American foodways for decades. It’s part of the whole system.

I’m curious, do you know where the term soul food originates from?
It’s my understanding that it came about around the same time as soul music. There was a movement in the ’60s to describe the African American experience as soulful.

If there’s one thing you’d want everyone to know about soul food what would it be?
Soul food is just as expansive as any other cuisine that has been elevated. It’s just as rich and sophisticated and complex as any other ethnic cuisine.

Sweet Potato Dinner Rolls

These tender rolls get their pale orange hue and delicate sweetness from mashed sweet potatoes.

Makes 15 rolls

Nutritional Info


  • 1

    small orange-fleshed sweet potato (6 ounces), peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks

  • Kosher salt

  • 1/2 cup


  • 1/4 cup

    (2 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus about 3 tablespoons melted butter for brushing

  • 4 cups

    all-purpose flour (about 1 pound 2 ounces), plus more if needed

  • 1 (1/4-ounce) envelope

    instant yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)

  • 2 tablespoons


  • 2

    large eggs


  1. In a small saucepan, combine the sweet potato with enough water to cover. Add 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium and gently boil until the sweet potato is very tender when tested with a knife, 10 to 13 minutes.

  2. Drain and transfer the sweet potato to a mixing bowl. Mash with a potato masher or fork. Add the buttermilk and butter.

  3. If using a stand mixer, beat the mixture with a paddle attachment at medium-low speed until the mixture is fairly smooth. Add the flour, yeast, sugar, eggs, and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and mix on medium-low speed, scraping bottom and sides of bowl as needed, until the dough is smooth, sticky, and pulls away from the side of the bowl, about 8 minutes; add a little more flour if the dough is very sticky.

  4. If making by hand, beat the sweet potato, buttermilk, and butter with a whisk until smooth and no lumps remain. Add the flour, yeast, sugar, eggs, and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and stir with a wooden spoon until the ingredients are well combined. Dump the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 8 minutes; it will be slightly sticky.

  5. Transfer the dough to a clean, greased bowl. Cover, and let rise in a warm, draft-free spot for about 1 1/2 hours, or until more than doubled in size.

  6. Turn out dough onto a clean, ungreased surface and divide it into 15 equal pieces (a kitchen scale works well here). One at a time, cup each piece of dough beneath your palm and work in quick, circular motions to form a tight ball, with only a tiny seam along the bottom. Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish and arrange the balls in even rows. Brush with butter, loosely cover, and set aside in a warm place until puffy, doubled in size, and they fill the pan, about 1 hour.

  7. About 15 minutes before the rolls are ready, preheat the oven to 375°F. Bake until golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer the dish to a wire rack. Brush gently with a little butter. Let cool for 10 minutes, then turn out the rolls onto the rack and invert again so they are bottom side down. Let cool for about 20 minutes before serving.